Breaking Down Business Silos – The Importance of Social Alignment

“Much as we believe that we are most productive in our little silos, the fundamental fact remains that humans are social animals. By denying the opportunity to collaborate and cross-pollinate ideas, businesses contribute to their own speedy demise.” - Pratik Dholakiya

Silos can be broken down by moving work groups or units towards social alignment.

Working in traditional hierarchies based on business units or functions separates and isolates people. This is a costly and ineffective way to operate when using a project approach, dealing with complexity or where a high degree of connectively is required – features characteristic of the modern-day work environment.  

A project approach necessitates different groups or units work together to achieve a project, service or result. Unsurprisingly, research shows project success is much harder to achieve if project stakeholders remain within their silos as, in part, it takes a lot more time to reach agreement and make decisions.

Yet around half of businesses operate this way.

To improve overall work performance, as well as increase the likelihood of achieving project success and business-IT alignment, research indicates that separate work groups or units should be encouraged to form one cohesive, superordinate group who share understanding of business objectives as well as commitment towards business outcomes and the plans for achieving them – that is, the different groups or units should be encouraged to socially align with one another.

As different work groups have different areas of expertise, cultural idiosyncrasies, priorities, pressures and resources they tend to resist working together. Instead they typically avoid sharing their information, supplies or rewards with the other groups who they may view as competitors or, possibly, as inferior given they don’t possess their own group’s knowledge, expertise or experience.

Without first acknowledging this limitation and taking the time to put in processes that will aid the breaking down of silos, senior management run a much higher risk that a project will fail, business opportunities will be missed, work efforts may be duplicated and tasks will take longer than necessary.

So how can we develop social alignment between different work groups? 

Social alignment occurs when different groups become part of one superordinate group, mutually understand business objectives, are committed towards the business outcomes, and the plans for achieving them.

A recent study observed social alignment as a process consisting of stages that groups transition through to achieve social alignment. These stages are as follows:

  1. First, each group needs to actively seek to better understand the other groups’ business responsibilities and knowledge, and to share their own business responsibilities and knowledge. Through this understanding, the groups will naturally develop a respect for one another as they begin to understand the other groups’ perspectives, capabilities and constraints.

  2. Secondly, before the groups can achieve alignment, they need to engage in cross-discipline participation, that is, to participate jointly in business processes and activities. Social alignment was found to occur from the achievement of these stages.

The study also offered several ways social alignment between different work groups can be encouraged.

One way is with formal controls such as formal governance, formal authority, formal documentation and firm deadlines. However, while formal controls may be effective at quickly moving people towards social alignment it is unclear how long lasting this alignment will be. The additional use of informal controls (peer-initiated, people-based controls such as informal meetings and phone calls) may assist in developing social alignment between groups that can be sustained over time.

In closing, the first step in breaking down silos and moving different work groups towards social alignment is to use formal and informal controls to encourage the works groups to learn about one another. Often what keeps us separated from one another are the assumptions, prejudices and ethnocentric views we hold consciously or unconsciously about those we perceive as other or different. It is more difficult to hold onto our biases when we are faced with first-hand knowledge of another group’s lived experience. 

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